Link between vouchers, segregation gets welcome attention

White citizens across the South resisted after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that “separate but equal” schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. Most resistance was futile, but Prince Edward County, Va., came up with an approach that endured.

“The white elite of Prince Edward County defied the Brown decision by closing the entire public school system and diverting public education funds into vouchers to be used at a segregated private academy that only white students could attend,” Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, writes in Dissent. “As the battles over the implementation of Brown played out, African-American students were denied access to education for five years in a row.”

As Casey explains, the story didn’t end there. Prince Edward County set the stage for the “school choice” ideology that has been embraced by President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Betsy DeVos.

Economist Milton Friedman, the intellectual father of the voucher movement, gave a nod to vouchers-for-segregation in his influential essay “The Role of Government in Education” – written in 1955, the year after the Brown decision. Friedman wrote in a footnote that he deplored discrimination and segregation but deplored “forced unsegregation” even more.

Friedman’s disciples James McGill Buchanan and G. Warren Nutter went further, trying unsuccessfully to get Virginia to abolish its public schools and establish a universal voucher system to subsidize segregated private schools. Their proposal “was written and circulated with Friedman’s support,” Casey writes.

But Prince Edward County had shown the way. By the 1960s, more than 200 “segregation academies” had opened in the South. Tens of thousands of students received public funding to attend the private schools in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

The racist origin of school vouchers isn’t a new story, but it’s been getting welcome attention, arguably thanks to Trump and DeVos. Rachel Cohen shows in the American Prospect how teachers’ union officials and advocates have been telling the story in support of a pro-public-schools agenda.

In addition to reading Casey’s article, you can learn about the history from:

Voucher advocates will say the link to segregation is ancient history and has nothing to do with the current school choice movement. It’s true that present-day voucher schools can’t bar students on the basis of race. But the rationale for school choice is often to discriminate, to surround students with others who are like them and exclude those who are different.

A Chalkbeat investigation published last week found that about 10 percent of Indiana voucher schools openly declare that LGBT students and families aren’t welcome. Those 27 schools received over $16 million from the state last year – public funding for schools that practice segregation.


8 thoughts on “Link between vouchers, segregation gets welcome attention

  1. Pingback: Charlottesville: Thoughts and Resources | School Desegregation Notebook

  2. I guess Wisconsin State Senator, Democratic Party activist, and civil rights leader, Polly Williams, must have been misinformed when she proposed the nation’s first school voucher program in that state. She later cooled on the idea, but because it was being broadened too much — to include more whites and Catholics — not because it was serving the interests of racists.

    • Les, thanks for commenting. No, I wouldn’t say she was misinformed, and she was certainly more knowledgeable about Milwaukee schools at the time than I am. I’ve written (at least on Twitter) that I have great respect for Polly Williams, Howard Fuller and (today) RiShawn Biddle for their advocacy of “whatever it takes” for black children. I don’t agree that vouchers are the best path, but easy for me to say from a distance. It’s worth noting, though, that some people within Milwaukee’s black community did think Williams and Fuller were mistaken in their approach.

  3. Pingback: News Roundup – Early Fall, Part 1: School resegregation and district secession | School Desegregation Notebook

  4. Pingback: News Roundup – Early Fall, Part 1: School resegregation and district secession –

  5. Pingback: News Roundup – Early Fall, Part 1: School resegregation and district secession | Integrated Schools

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s